excerpt from Untitled Work-in-Progress
This story takes place in 1930s New Orleans. It is about a family that has migrated from the sugar cane plantations of St. James Parish, LA to the city.
In the city Harry missed his black earth. It didn’t matter to him that his children reminded him over and over again that he didn’t own nothing. He had no paper on the land. That land he called his was Malarcher property, that his Momma and Poppa had been Malarcher property too: “You got no more claim to a lump that mud than the man in the moon does,” they said, “We left so one day one of us might own a place of our own.”
Poppa got up, opened the back door to sit on the steps with his back to those citified young ones inside the rented shotgun on White Street. He took off his house shoes and pressed his bare feet into the dirt. This tiny patch of hard packed, damp, slick with green moss in spots, dirt was as close as he might ever get to real soil again. Critty had done a better job of keeping their children grounded in church, than he had done keeping them reverent for the land.
“Good earth is black earth,” he told Old Man Malarcher as they walked the fields surveying acres planted in seed cane. Malarcher grunted. They knew each other well. Malarcher knew Harry was talking about more than the soil beneath their feet. The Mississippi had scoped up the continent’s best soil, carried it down river and laid it down layer after layer, spring flood after spring flood. Earth so fertile almost any stray seed could pop-up green and flourishing in Louisiana sun and humidity. A blessing and a curse. A land where almost any crop can be forced to grow, even sugar cane.
The land’s ability to bring forth life made tending it so much harder, made it back breaking work. As the men walked the rows, they could barely take a step without bending over and pulling up by the roots a green intruder. A weed left to grow could choke seed cane before it had a chance to thrive. Harry carried a burlap sack whenever they went out into fields, even when their purpose was nothing more than to survey and plan. They tossed the aliens into the sack, roots and all; they dared not let them drop at their feet, or toss them high into the air to land five rows over. This earth would nurture whatever it was given, and make it live in spite of and despite of whether it was wanted.
The old man turned to Harry, “It’s time to get these fields weeded.” This time Harry grunted.
“Getting hot and dirty. Need to clean myself up.”
“I’ll stay out here a bit longer,” Harry said.
When Malarcher’s back disappeared in the distance, Harry squatted, scooped up a handful of soil and held it to his nose. It smelled sweet and musky. He knew that scent. It came to him first with his Momma’s milk, before he even knew he was alive. It smelled like his folks, the ones long gone and the ones still here. Tomorrow the field would smell like this, as his folks went row by row, back swamp to levee, picking out the unwanted. People didn’t appreciate the smell of black folks laboring. They ridiculed the scent, called it funky, kept their distance from folks who perfumed the earth, believed they were better if they purchased scent in a fancy bottle, as if money was all that mattered.
As Harry cupped the earth in his hands, he felt life as surely as a mid-wife feels pulsing life at each live delivery. Harry wondered what Malarcher felt when black earth covered his hands and blackened his hands.
“I should have showed my children to feel the earth was alive with us.”
Kate Hymes is a poet and writer, writing consultant, and workshop leader. She is a native of New Orleans, Louisiana. Many of her stories and poems are inspired by memories of her hometown, and stories of plantation and city life in southeast Louisiana passed down by family. She is a third generation poet and storyteller. Her poems have been published in a number of anthologies, most recently mightier: Poets for Social Justice, edited by Poet Gold, CAPS Press, 2020. In Fall 2017, her chapbook, True Grain, was published. She edited wVw Anthologies 2011 and 2015. She has led Wallkill Valley Writers’ workshops, an affiliate of Amherst Writers & Artists, in the Hudson Valley for over 20 years. She lives in New Paltz, NY.